Charlemagne, Manno 1948—
Manno Charlemagne 1948—
Haitian folk singer, politician
People in the United States chuckled when former entertainer Sonny Bono was elected mayor of a California town. In Haiti, political events are rarely a source of amusement. Prior to 1995, Manno Charlemagne was one of Haiti’s most popular singer-songwriters. However, his career took an ironic twist in July of that year when he was elected mayor of Haiti’s largest city, Port-au-Prince. Charlemagne had spent his entire musical career writing and singing songs of protest against the oppressive regimes that had governed his country. Often, he paid for this agitation with beatings and imprisonment. His election victory raised a poignant question for politically oriented artists all over the world: Is it easier to affect political change from within a system or as an outsider?
Charlemagne was born in 1948, in one of the many impoverished sections of Port-au-Prince. Like many children in Haiti, he grew up largely on the streets, and it was there that he received his early political education. Rebellion, though brutally supressed, was constantly in the air. In a 1995 interview with The Progressive, Charlemagne recalled the 1956 overthrow of President Paul Magloire. He told of witnessing bloody battles and the construction of homemade Bornbs by local agitators. This atmosphere of political unrest helped to shape the revolutionary outlook that Charlemagne articulated so clearly in his songs.
At the age of 15, Charlemagne was arrested and tortured after fighting with a member of the Tonton Macoutes, the notoriously brutal police force of Haitian dictator Francois (Papa Doc) Duvalier. Over the next several years, Charlemagne occupied himself with political activism. This period lasted until the end of the 1960s when, as he told Fernando Gonzalez of the Boston Globe in a 1992 interview,” there was a major political repression against intellectuals and everything that was cultural or political.”
In the 1970s, Charlemagne began to hone his singing and songwriting skills as part of the kilti líbete, or “freedom culture” groups that were emerging around Haiti. Rather than playing formal concerts, Charlemagne and other performers followed the troubadour
At a Glance…
Born Emmanuel Charlemagne, in 1948, in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. Education; Studied with Catholic priests. Politics: “Left-wing”
Singer and songwriter, c. 1970—; recorded first album, 1978; exiled from Haiti, 1980-1986; Mayor of Port-au-Prince, Haiti, 1995—.
Addresses : Office-Office of the Mayor, Port-au-Prince, Haiti.
tradition. They performed mainly on street corners and in other public places free of charge. In addition to original material, many of the songs Charlemagne and his comrades sang were reworkings of traditional songs with new words to fit the political conditions.
By 1977, government intimidation of Haitian artists had eased somewhat and Charlemagne was able to launch his performing career. He released his first album in 1978. The album, which combined the language of protest with beautiful music, was extremely popular among Haiti’s poor and disenfranchised. Although Charlemagne’s music was officially banned by the Haitian government, bootleg cassette tapes of his music were often available.
In June of 1980, Charlemagne was in the middle of a performance when he was dragged off the stage by Haitian dictator Jean Claude Duvalier’s henchmen. He was arrested and eventually deported. During the next several years, he spent most of his time in New York City, where he recorded three more albums. The albums, although popular among Haitians living in the United States, did not gain much of an audience among mainstream American listeners.
Charlemagne remained in exile until 1986, the year Jean Claude Duvalier’s regime was ousted from power. He returned to Haiti and became one of the staunchest supporters of his close friend Jean-Bertrand Aristide’s bid for the Haitian presidency. With the support of a gigantic populist movement, Aristide was elected president of Haiti in 1990. The following year, however, Aristide was overthrown in a military coup. Because of his close ties to Aristide, Charlemagne found himself in a precarious position. Two weeks after the coup, police officers came to his home, beat him in front of his family, and threw him in prison. He was released after one week. However, as he left the prison, he was arrested again by another group of men in plain cloth es. Charlemagne was released again, and, fearing further abuse and imprisonment, sought refuge at the Argentine embassy.
Charlemagne’s plight caught the attention of many international human rights activists. Filmmaker Jonathan Demme assembled “Americans for Manno,” an organization composed of concerned show business friends. The group, which included actors Robert DeNiro, Michelle Pfeiffer, and Paul Newman; directors Spike Lee and Woody Allen; and singer-songwriter Bob Dylan petitioned Haitian prime minister Jean-Jacques Honorat on Charlemagne’s behalf. Former U.S. Attorney General Ramsay Clark also came to Charlemagne’s aid. Charlemagne was finally allowed to leave Haiti on December 29, 1991. He later credited Demme’s celebrity crusaders with saving his life.
During his second exile, Charlemagne continued to perform regularly while waiting for the opportunity to return to Haiti. He spent most of his time in cities with large Haitian populations such as Miami and New York City in the United States and Montreal, Canada. He also attempted to broaden his appeal to English-speaking audiences by singing songs in English, rather than his native Creole. American listeners tended to refer to him as the “Haitian Bob Dylan,” or the “Haitian Bob Marley” the latter in reference to the Jamaican singer-songwriter. Although neither of those comparisons held water musically, they did accurately reflect the element of protest in his songs.
Charlemagne’s appearance and musical style generally gave no hint of the passionate message behind his music. On stage, he usually looked like a peasant. Fernando Gonzalez of theBoston Globe described Charlemagne’s singing voice as “dark, robust, but small.” Charlemagne frequently described himself and his art as “anti-imperialist. “In several of his songs, he criticized French and American interference in Haiti’s affairs. His musical style also draws from the African storytelling tradition, which is an essential mode of communication in a country like Haiti, where much of the population is illiterate.
With the support of the U.S. government and armed forces, Aristide was returned to power in 1994. Aristide’s reinstallation as president allowed Charlemagne to return again to Haiti. In 1995, Charlemagne decided to take his political activism in a new direction by running for mayor of Port-au-Prince, an office considered by many to be the country’s second most powerful. According to the Reuters news service, Charlemagne spent most of the campaign at home in New York City and on tour in Europe. He generated support by distributing flyers containing his picture and guitar logo throughout Port-au-Prince. Although Aristide did not officially endorse either Charlemagne or the incumbent Evans Paul, Charlemagne was widely perceived as having Aristide’s backing because of their long association. He won the election with 45 percent of the vote, to Paul’s 18 percent. Charlemagne’s landslide victory caught the U.S. government by surprise, since Paul was generally considered to be the logical successor to Aristide as president in 1996. Paul claimed that the election was tainted by widespread fraud.
As mayor of Port-au-Prince, Charlemagne found the transition from rebel to political insider a difficult one. He was accustomed to simply speaking out against whatever he thought was wrong, rather than seeking solutions to these injustices. Diplomacy, a trait that did not come naturally to Charlemagne, was often necessary in order to get things accomplished. He also found that the funds required to meet his objectives, which included improving schools and health care in poor neighborhoods, simply did not exist. Although he remained close to Aristide, Charlemagne was frequently critical of his old friend and many of his associates. He accused Aristide of withholding funds—under instruction from the U.S. government—to which the mayor’s office was entitled. He believed that the U.S. State Department wanted to make trouble for him because of his left-wing views. Charlemagne also felt that Aristide was incapable of ridding his own Lavalas party of corruption.
Even with Aristide back in power, the political situation in Haiti remained volatile. In November of 1995, Port-au Prince’s city hall was strafed with gunfire in an attempt to intimidate Charlemagne as national elections approached. However, Charlemagne refused to be cowed. Frustrated with administrative solutions to problems, Charlemagne began planning fund-raising concerts to raise money for his programs. While Evans Paul had seen the mayor’s office as a springboard to bigger things, Charlemagne emphatically denied any interest in holding a higher office. In a New York Times interview, he told Larry Rohter that,” As president, you are the guy that people are always focusing on, and I prefer to be the guy down here, pointing his finger.” If Haiti’s struggle for democracy is to ultimately succeed, Manno Charlemagne’s eloquent fingerpointing will have had something to do with it.
La Fimen (With others)Konbit: Burning Rhythms of Haiti, 1987.
Boston Globe, May 1, 1992, p. 59; July 14, 1995, p. 2.
Los Angeles Times, July 14, 1995, p. A13.
New York Times, March 8, 1992, sec. 2, p. 31; October 17, 1995, p. A4.
Progressive, January 1995, p. 16.
Vibe, November 1994, p. 33.
Village Voice, November 19, 1991, p. 90.
Wisconsin State Journal, November 19, 1995, p. 9A.
—Robert R. Jacobson
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